View from the Moon: Top Tips from the Stars - Non-Executive Directors


Simon Quinn, Head of Executive Search at Moon Consulting welcomes you to the first article in our new e-series entitled, 'View from the Moon: Top Tips from the Stars'.

In this series, we will feature the insights of successful business leaders, for those seeking to progress their careers, providing newcomers to a senior role with an understanding of the key considerations of specific senior disciplines. In our series, we will cover the roles of Chair, CEO and Board Directors and will feature highly respected business leaders within our broad network, from a cross section of public, private, listed and not for profit sectors.  

We start our series exploring the role of the Non-Executive Director. What skills does the person require? What experience should they bring? How do they ensure they add real value to an organisation?

I meet with Jim McAuliffe, Finance Director at Bristol Airport and Trustee and Treasurer at Arnolfini,who comments 'It is essential to realise that you must take your legal responsibilities seriously and be ready to challenge the Executive Board constructively. Therefore, you must be able to give sufficient time to the role and be prepared to act when required to do so - if you cannot fulfil the time commitment, the role is not for you. And that commitment will invariably be much greater than you imagine. I personally found that the NHS was an excellent starting point as a Non-Exec, providing a structured environment and valuable initial training. This, coupled with undertaking a Leadership Development Programme and finding a solid role model in the form of an experienced fellow Non-Exec, allowed me to learn a whole new set of skills. This has equipped me well for both a subsequent Non-Exec appointment, and my executive role at Bristol Airport. My top tip to an aspiring Non-Exec Director is to really understand what the organisation is looking to you to provide - only then can you truly assess whether you can add value as a Non-Exec.'

So, it is clearly very important to know what value you can add, but I am interested to understand how hard it is to find that first role. I talk with Julian Telling, an investor with experience of AiM listings, to gain an appreciation of the value of networking. Julian comments, 'You will only really get asked to be a Non-Exec if you have already done something that you are recognised for. For me, I had just floated a business and been an executive director of a Plc and a friend of a friend was looking for Listed experience and asked me to step onto a Board in a Non-Exec capacity.' I am intrigued to hear Julian agree with Jim, insofar as he also learnt a huge amount from an impressive Chairman, 'This was very important for me as I quickly learnt that there are often issues that require attention when you first join the Board and therefore it is critical to have a supportive Chairman. However, the most important point to remember is that a Non-Exec Director should remain truly independent - you must prod, question and challenge the executive team and also use your connections and networks to help make introductions where appropriate for the business.' I ask Julian how much the Non-Exec role varies from the executive roles he has held in the past, 'There is such a fine line between the roles, especially for those people transitioning from Exec to Non-Exec. In my opinion, being a Non-Exec is not possible for everyone; but if you have built a credible reputation and can understand that your role is to act as an advisor, without trying to take over, then a portfolio Non-Exec career can be very fulfilling.'

I am keen to get a perspective from Richard Moon, Chairman and CEO operating in both Public & VC/PE sectors, on what he looks for in an effective Non-Exec, 'Boards often seek a good counterfoil to the current thinking on the Board, so you may be a good candidate but you could be too similar to someone already there - timing is everything!' Richard confirms the importance of knowing how to add value, carrying out effective due diligence and declaring any potential conflicts of interest early in the process, 'You must be familiar with the Corporate Code and once on the Board, you should stay in regular contact with the other Execs to help formulate the strategy and  future direction of the Company. I strongly advise you never overpromise and under deliver, but rather gain trust from your colleagues by listening carefully before making an effective contribution. It is important to remain flexible in your thinking, adapt to change and most importantly never, ever become a Non-Exec for the money. You are there to be independent, listen and challenge and then support the consensus decision wholeheartedly.'

So in summary, what is clear from my recent discussions is for the aspiring Non-Exec to understand how they can add value to an organisation and to undertake their own due diligence to gain a perspective on the existing Board dynamics, organisational challenges and opportunities. It is clear that being a Non-Exec Director requires a specific skills, knowledge and time commitment - it is not for the faint hearted!

I would personally like to thank our contributors to this article.

Jim McAuliffe, Finance Director at Bristol Airport and Trustee and Treasurer, Arnolfini

Julian Telling: An investor with experience of AiM listings, acquisitions, mergers and joint ventures predominantly in the services sector, who holds a number of directorships in the public and private sectors as well as being a Trustee of Quartet (the Bristol community foundation) & Currently Non-Exec Director at 1pm

 Richard Moon: An experienced Chairman and CEO operating in both Public & VC/PE sectors